Today’s New APPS Interview is with Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center.
Thanks very much for doing this interview with us today, Linda. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
Philosophy is a major addiction, let’s just call it out for what it is. As an adult, I took a three year break from philosophy, after I dropped out of college, worked various jobs, and did a lot of political activism, but I found myself mulling over Heidegger’s critique of Cartesianism on my day job, and daydreaming about Pascal when I was supposed to be putting out a newsletter.
Did your coworkers ever notice?
I think they thought I was just in my usual stupor. Like all other addictive behaviors, philosophy is neither pleasure nor pain, but compulsion. Time never passes so quickly as when I am reading and writing philosophy.
Yeah, there’s nothing like that absorption. How about collaborations?
I enjoy both solitary and collaborative work. Collaborations stimulate my brain, forces me to become articulate about half-formed ideas, while solitary work allows me to mull over ideas at my own pace.
Do you have a set routine to your day?
I have never been able to have a set routine. I had children fairly young, and babies that required my attention all through graduate school. I also held down part time jobs while my partner worked 12-hour factory shifts. I never had much control over my time or my space and thus developed the ability to work whenever and wherever I could, with definite help from espresso.
I have to confess to a certain impatience with less encumbered philosophers who still miss deadlines. The bigger obstacles than my hectic home life came from those naysayers in my own mind, looking askance at me and at my work, in my imagination.
Why don’t we ever have supportive inner voices? Even Socrates’s daimon was negative, telling him what not to do!
My first sabbatical was waylaid by the inner demons, just when I finally had some real time to write. I have now finally had enough therapy to shut them up, and could really use another sabbatical!
I could tell you the exact number of days until my next one.
But in truth, the best way to work for me is to have uninterrupted time for at least part of the week. Best of all is to be able to pursue such work for more than one day in a row, but, alas, such luxuries are rare. One has to learn to enjoy the juggling act, to resist the idea that at some point, all emails will be answered, all reports written up, all papers graded, and for many women, all housework complete, before one can responsibly relax and enjoy a new book on social epistemology.
I’d never deny this is male privilege, but I find I clean more when I have work to do; it’s a procrastination technique that actually has positive effects. But be that as is may, how did you come to study philosophy?
Yes, housework can make you feel so productive! Like most people, I did not know philosophy existed until I went to college, though I certainly engaged in philosophy, even as a young teenager. I fell in love with nineteenth century novels, a ready escape from my dull and difficult surroundings, and they were chock full of philosophical ideas and debates.
I can see how entering a new world like that isn’t just escape; or better, that escape is not a bad thing.
I actually wanted to be a physicist; now that would have been a major escape. I excelled at science in high school, and found physics particularly fascinating, both because of the big machinery and the essentially metaphysical questions that were driving high-energy research at the time. My family had little education and modest resources. Education was a natural form of class escape, but physics was a crazy ambition for a girl, especially one whose mother came from sharecroppers. Yet on the other hand, anything I might aim for beyond the secretarial pool was crazy, so why not?
Go big or don’t go at all.
Exactly. But despite my college ambitions, I could not manage to stick it out through the social and emotional challenges of high school and dropped out my senior year. But I quickly got my GED and managed to get to college already married and without a dime of family support. It was something of a miracle. I got every form of government support in the known world, and a job in a physics lab (I was the only woman in a four story building).
I’ll say. What was philosophy like for you in those circumstances?
My first philosophy course at Florida State was like the gateway drug: I was hooked, and it was also becoming apparent that the world of physics was not just male dominant, but male only. There were 3 (!) female philosophy majors, so at least I was not alone. Peter Dalton, Donald Hodges, Russell Dancy, and Eugene Kaelin were my gods as teachers.
So you decided this was the path for you.
I decided to major in philosophy and pursue a career, despite the anguish of my parents, who thought I was throwing away my education on a hopeless and useless endeavor. But I was economically on my own so free to do what I wanted. Kaelin spent one entire course on Being and Time, another entirely on Being and Nothingness. I studied Heidegger at the same time I was reading Wittgenstein, and the connections were overwhelming.
I then, again, dropped out my senior year, frustrated and pessimistic with the academic atmosphere of arcane debate while the world was burning, but within a few years found myself unable to kick the addiction. Getting to graduate school took some patience and effort, but when I got to Brown, I felt giddy to be at a place with so much philosophical talent.
What was Brown like for you?
The atmosphere was friendly, collaborative, and supportive. And yet there was a difference if one was a woman. Philosophical conversations with peers quickly turned into lectures, and I was reduced to asking questions. The faculty were much more egalitarian than the students.
So you’re saying insecurity led your male fellow students to dominate the discussion.
I think so, although the women students had some uncomfortable competitions as well, a common effect among those who have chosen paths in which they are generally the singular exceptions as ‘the only one…’ .
Who were your friends?
That’s how I survived. I found a best friend in Vrinda Dalmiya, and we made it through together, passing notes in the backs of seminars like grade school students, sharing perceptions late into the night. No lectures from her, just challenging questions and brilliant ideas. And babysitting help!
How about the other women students?
Vrinda and I noticed that the women students coming to Brown, though a regular 20% or so of the incoming class, tended to become more quiet the longer they managed to stay. By their 3rd and 4th year, none were talking in seminars or asking questions of speakers, even if they had done so in the beginning. It was quite striking.
And frightening. How about the other aspects of Brown?
We had an incredible speaker series at Brown, partly because we were easily accessible from both Boston and New York. One speaker who had a big impact on me was Quine, a personal hero.
Tell us about that.
I idolized Quine, yet when he came, I discovered him to be completely inept at answering questions in public, which assured me that one could succeed in philosophy even as an introvert. I also discovered him to be the most thoughtless political reactionary one could imagine.
I take it “feet of clay” isn’t strong enough here.
His politics brought home for me, again, the disjuncture between philosophical success and true philosophical wisdom. I was never again naïve enough to believe that philosophers are likely to be smarter than cab drivers, or the general voting public.
What about outside philosophy at Brown?
Outside the philosophy department, I went to the many lectures Brown offered with leading continental thinkers. Having lunch with Derrida, I asked him, had he read Quine? Mais oui, he answered. I kept finding theoretical commonalities between these disparate thinkers across the analytic and continental divide that were rarely noted. The situation between analytic and continental philosophers struck me as similar to that between north American and Latin American philosophers: continentalists, and Latin Americans, could be relied upon to have read widely in both domains, while analytic philosophers and north Americans lived serenely cloistered lives.
Tell us about analytic and continental at Brown.
I was in the minority of students at Brown interested in continental as well as analytic philosophy. Again, I found the faculty broader than the students: Chisholm had a strong interest in the history of phenomenology, Nussbaum in Nietzsche and Foucault, and Schmitt’s work took in Marx to Habermas. They also let me take advantage of the wealth of critical theory at Brown in other departments, an opportunity of which I made full use. This gave me contact with a coterie of English and cultural studies students and very different conversations, even though they still were mainly reading philosophy.
What was your dissertation on?
Although drawn to feminist philosophy, I decided not to risk my children’s future with a dissertation in an area so marginal to the discipline. Nonetheless, my topic was risky: I decided to pursue my interest in epistemology through a comparative analysis of influential analytic and continental philosophers. No single member of my committee could speak to every thinker I was including; I had to do the bridge- work myself. But the skeptical questions my committee members asked were quite helpful in forcing me to clarify and explain and to look anew at the silent assumptions each side was making.
Sounds like it was successful then.
Yes, I came out of graduate school successfully, and even in an analytic department I had managed to learn a fair amount about continental and feminist philosophy, pragmatism, even the burgeoning area of LGBT thought, but my interest in Latin American philosophy went unrequited.
Yes, I can see how that would be harder than the others.
Even ethnic studies departments rarely have faculty with an expertise in this area, so it can be hard to find mentors. I had done some work in it as an undergraduate with an Argentinian professor, but since that time I had found no one, not even my Cubano thesis advisor, who could support my desire to read more systematically. That interest had to be done entirely on my own time, with the help of more expert colleagues like Mario Saenz, Jorge Gracia, Ofelia Schutte, and Eduardo Mendieta, after I began my teaching career. (The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy just put out a set of recommendations for how, and where, to pursue work in this area. See http://pluralistsguide.org)
How did this collaboration work?
We shared sources, discussed our interpretations, read each other’s papers, plotted to make changes in the profession that could open it up to the tradition of Latin American philosophy, and emboldened each other to insert this area into our teaching. Twenty years hence, there are more faculty, courses, translations, and more of a general visibility of the field. Though there is still a long way to go, the progress we made gives one hope.
What was your early professional life like?
My first job was at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, with a 2-2-2 load. The students were smart and intellectually self-motivated, but the campus had a bit of a claustrophobic feel to me, since I was used to large state institutions. There had never been a woman faculty member in the philosophy department there, and there was a history of problems in the department, of the usual sort.
Never? You were the very first one?
The very first. I began to hear rumors of problems when I first arrived, but I was determined to ignore them unless incontrovertible evidence came my way. I of course hoped very much they weren’t true, and that I hadn’t move my family half way across the country just to be stuck in a small department with ongoing sexual harassment issues. By Thanksgiving, the evidence did come my way, and I was sick. And panicked.
I can hardly imagine what that was like for you.
Several faculty members outside philosophy had known about the problem and had assumed hiring a woman would solve the problem, as if a young fresh Ph.D. would be able to ‘fix it’ by herself! I was furious at the older faculty who assumed I could have this thrown my way in my first year while I was trying to learn the ropes as a teacher, but I was also moved by the sad tales of students. I counseled them with the usual advice: keep records, write things down, make a report. They were terrified, wanting to stay in the profession without making enemies, and looked to me again to solve the problem.
What did you do?
So I made the decision to seek another job, then blow the whistle, or at least share what information I had with the Provost. I was able to land another job, uprooting my family again in the space of a year, and spilled the beans. I left, and he left soon after, both, as it turned out, to greener pastures.
A hell of a way to be introduced to the profession.
My next job, at Syracuse University, was similar only in one respect, the department had not had but one woman before, and were rather nonplussed about how to interact. But most rose to the occasion.
I’m glad to hear that.
These extra-philosophical challenges took quite a lot of energy to address that I might have been using to publish, but I managed to keep up a steady focus on writing. The second job was at a research university with enormous advantages: a regular speaker series, time off before tenure, the chance to regularly teach graduate seminars, and colleagues who read and commented on my work. It became quite clear to me that a successful publishing career was the product of institutional context, not individual brilliance.
An extremely important point. Tell us more about your experience there, if you would.
There was no formal mentoring but I was aided by an excellent pro-active chair, Stewart Thau, who had us meet with members of the tenure committee our first year and provided substantial information and advice on every step of the process. Stewart was a Vanderbilt graduate and both knew something about and appreciated continental philosophy. And just the feeling that the department wanted me to get tenure was quite important.
Yes, the psychological boost there is very important.
Yet the hurdles were rather ridiculous: the last person who got tenure had a book, an anthology and 18 major articles, and I was told he squeaked through. But that is what I had to aim for, and came close to achieving.
What was your early publishing strategy?
I knew I needed to publish in some standard philosophy journals that analytic philosophers would recognize, but because of the topics I worked on I also published across a spectrum of journals that my colleagues knew little about, from feminist theory to continental philosophy to cultural studies. This was a problem, but with the help of my chair we were able to provide enough information to satisfy their questions. The spectrum was turned to my advantage, to showcase the bridgework I was doing and to make an argument for enlarged spheres of influence.
That’s very positive.
Yet tenure was a nerve-wracking process. I didn’t mind the very fact of being judged, as some of my fellow junior faculty friends did, but I worried about being judged by those who had insufficient understanding of the area of philosophy within which I work. I remember a senior, powerful colleague expressing skepticism as he read a syllabus for a Foucault seminar, saying “I just don’t know what you are up to, Linda.” I was the lone continentalist and often had experiences such as being asked to explain deconstruction to a table full of (white male) analytic philosophers while we ate our lunch. I developed chronic indigestion.
Yikes: how to choose between being grilled at lunch and the brown bag lunch wolfed down at your desk? We’ve discussed analytic and continental and bridge-building already, but what more do you want to say on this?
There are many divisions in philosophy between the diversity of approaches to philosophical methodology, preferred textual traditions, and styles of argument. The divide between analytic and continental is no doubt the largest divide, yet there are numerous others, and within analytic philosophy it is not uncommon to have one sub-area hurl the epithet of “that’s not philosophy” to another.
Yes, “analytic philosophy” is by no means monolithic.
I confess to having gate-keeping thoughts myself as I read some of the work in philosophy of mind these days that look to be arguments over theory choice in the discipline of psychology or the brain sciences.
What’s going on overall, do you think?
We seem to be a field of inquiry that is experiencing a meta-crisis of sorts. The divergence between sub-fields within philosophy is so wide as to give one pause. But that divergence itself might not create a crisis if the field itself were not in crisis.
The social context that surrounds us assuredly plays a role in heightening internal tensions, as administrations, not to mention public legislatures, seek to make education more testable, more demonstrably ‘value-added,’ and more utilitarian. Philosophy has its back against the wall, and some would have us, à la James Franco in 127 Hours, cut off a limb to survive.
I’m trying to make a Saw allusion, but I never saw the movie.
The question is, would becoming ‘leaner and meaner’ as a profession help us survive? And in what sense would we be surviving?
The best questions have no easy answer, and I have no real idea what to say to that.
What I have always found mystifying is the quest for hegemony. Those who really want to push out the areas they believe to be ‘non-philosophy’ are not content with peaceful coexistence. They literally would like to see many of us leave the profession. But would the existence of a single meta-philosophical paradigm be good from a philosophical point of view? Are we so absolutely sure of the boundaries of our field? Have we settled all such methodological questions decisively, beyond further debate? Of course not.
Do you think we could withstand this desire for control better if it weren’t for the financial crisis?
The financial crisis that has beset philosophy began before the 2008 meltdown, building more slowly through accretion as university resources shrink and full time faculty appointments are replaced by adjuncts. The presence of this underclass in our midst rattles the nerves, certainly of our graduate students. Twenty years ago I felt optimistic about the ecumenical attitudes of philosophy students, the increasing numbers who were reading Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Rawls and Habermas, and Dennett and Deleuze, and ignoring the old divisions. This wide approach made perfect philosophical sense, motivated often by a problem they were trying to solve for which a diversity of writers could be consulted.
Today I feel less optimistic. The crises in the field have bred a new conservatism. Mustn’t take risks, mustn’t rock the boat. The senior fuddy-duddies are too much in the driver’s seat, our power extended by the relative paucity of our numbers vis-à-vis the mass of philosophy teachers out there trying simply to get a job with health insurance. Experimentation and innovation are luxury goods for times of luxury, which is definitely not our time.
What do you see as the future for adjuncts?
Adjuncts will have to unionize in this country if they are to have a prayer of avoiding a continuation of the feudal peonage now in place. I helped in a small way a successful effort toward this at Syracuse. It can be done, and tenured faculty can definitely play an important role. But we have to get out of our offices, and our classrooms, and go to meetings and find out the facts and become politically involved. We should be called out if we don’t do so.
What about the APA’s role?
The APA has a critical role to play, and those who think it is becoming a tired and increasingly useless organization need to pay heed. Many have looked to the APA only as a job-listing site, and have paid their dues only when they absolutely had to in order to receive the JFP. Now, there are competing independent job listings, providing a means to avoid paying those dues. Yet these independent sites will not be working with the AAUP to censure departments with bad labor practices, and will not have the credibility or the clout to influence universities to save departments, as the APA was able to do recently in Nevada. The APA needs significant retooling and restructuring to bring it into the 21st century and to provide more resources for members, but it is the only organ that will be politically accountable and potentially democratic.
Let me wish you luck and success in finding allies and in leading the APA. Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now? Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
I change my mind all the time. As our political candidates are routinely chastised for their ‘inconsistency,’ I often think about how many philosophers I know who remark about how their metaphysical commitments differ from weekdays to weekends. If one were to stop reading and stop thinking, one could maintain consistency. Why would that be a positive outcome?
“A foolish consistency …” said Emerson.
Yet I do have core orientations that have stayed with me, as one generally finds in the philosophical world. I am a realist, though how I understand the meaning of this has varied and, hopefully, deepened. I am a materialist, but constantly find new challenges to materialism as well as new applications. I am an unrepentant revolutionary, even while I am constantly questioning what kind of revolution we need. It feels to me that Nietzsche was quite perceptive about the autobiographical nature of philosophical writing. We are all in the business of articulating our ownmost experience of the world, given the idiosyncratic particularity of our individual hermeneutic horizon.
How does teaching fit into your work of self-articulation?
Teaching is the most rewarding experience. The daily challenge of expectant faces yields regular moments of unexpected insight and breakthrough. I have had great fun in intellectual collaborations with peers on shared interests, but it is the dialogic encounter in the classroom with students who are likely to take only one class that gives one a sense of the open possibilities of philosophical thinking.
What are your frustrations?
My greatest frustrations are probably common to many: that theses I believe I have soundly trounced in publication continue to be trotted out and to become even more influential. Some days I feel quite powerless to stem the tide of transcendental idealism and the turn away from the body that has taken over too much of feminist theory, or to counteract the apolitical self-understanding persistent in epistemology, or the scientism sweeping our profession. One just has to keep at it, without letting one’s frustrations coagulate into a dogmatism that refuses to read or consider the new ideas. There is already too much dogmatism.
How about your current work?
My current projects include multiple books that will hopefully soon be finished, on the future of whiteness, on the ways we need to rethink rape, and on the relation of politics to epistemology. I am planning a Presidential Address to the Eastern this year that takes up the analytic-continental debate, again, but hopefully brings it to a different stage.
Thank you, Linda, for this interview, and I’m looking forward to that talk, in Atlanta!